A Month in the Woods: Reaching Out

Welcome back! In my last post, I wrote about the first part of my hike, during which I had some ups and downs, but mostly felt invigorated by my time romping through the Green Mountains, and grateful for the inner strength I'd found. We pick up right after I was back on the trail, and experiencing mixed emotions about it. At this point it becomes harder to write about what I was feeling on the trail and what my miles were like, because for days on end I stopped taking pictures or writing in my journal. When I set out after Waterbury I had mild feelings of aimlessness that I hoped would subside once I was back on the LT and pouring my energy into the hike. I thought, if I felt like I was spinning my wheels, surely it was because of the down time on my zero days, right? Oh, my. So wrong.

As I walked, the feeling of aimlessness intensified, and at times I felt trapped on the trail. Though there were some stretches during which my mood lifted, and combined with the gentler climbs to return my morale to a more pleasant standing, on the whole my attitude toward the venture fell off steadily, day by day. The gratitude I had at the outset soured into resentment, and I found myself breezing past summits without stopping for a photo, a snack, or even just to take a breath. The lush forests no longer felt magical, they felt endless and repetitive, and it seemed I was running in circles through the woods when I wanted to be home, making tangible progress in my life.

Sometimes interactions with other hikers would revitalize me (especially with Kathleen, a lovely woman and the only other vegan I saw on the trail, who I met right when I needed to make a trail friend most), but on the whole I felt oversocialized, sick of benign chit chat, and both my mind and body overworked and drained. On this trip that I had expected would restore and uplift me, I had instead exhausted my emotional stores completely and needed to refill my cup. I knew that if I stood any chance of finishing this challenge, I'd have to change both how I was hiking, and how I was thinking about hiking. So I made the decision to forego more of the shelters and stealth camp in my tent so I could be sure of some alone time to reenergize myself. I took one of the zero days I'd planned to spend on the trail and instead bused to a motel, knowing that a hot shower and contact with my loved ones would do me a world of good. But the biggest thing I did was reach out and ask for support. That sounds counterintuitive, since my introverted little self was already getting so cranky about constantly meeting new people that I was in real danger of turning into the neighborhood grouch, yelling kids off my lawn. I didn't reach out to the strangers I passed on the trail, I started talking to my loved ones who've passed, who knew me and knew my heart. I think about them all the time, and talk with them in dreams, but almost never while awake, out loud. But I had felt the presence of my living friends and family frequently on my hike, following my heart like vapor trails as I walked. I'm a pretty firm believer that the only thing death takes is your physical form, so was it that silly or crazy to see if I could feel the presence of my deceased friends and family, too? I decided I didn't care if it seemed silly or crazy. So I talked about baking with Margaret, who had been like a grandmother to me, and made the most beautiful painted sugar cookies and the best boozy apple pie that's ever existed. I talked with my Grandma and Grandpa about a plethora of different things, since their curiosity and love of learning knew no bounds in their 90 years on the planet. With my dear friend Esther, the most vibrant human I have ever had the pleasure to meet, I simply said hello, and danced a little down the trail, since she was the queen of impromptu dance parties.

I was bolstered by these one-sided conversations, and couldn't care that it meant giving some sniffly, puffy-eyed smiles and hellos to passing hikers. Finally, after a week of wishing I could abandon the trail at every road crossing, I felt my outlook improving, and although by this point in the hike there were far fewer summits and views to take in, I could appreciate the beauty of the trail again, in the ponds and the mossy trees and rocks, and even in the famously muddy path itself. I thought of my grandparents, so recently gone from us, but whose presence still looms so largely on that side of my family. Very shortly after they passed my cousin found a leaf in my Grandpa's beloved garden that had a pattern forming a clear and unmistakable "OK" on it. I'm not someone who holds my breath for tangible messages from beyond the grave because I think there are plenty of intangible ones around, but this was a very welcome, and characteristically brief missive. I thought about that leaf, and sang Trevor Hall's "Green Mountain State" as I walked.

I call on the green mountain state

I call on all the silence you make

Do you live inside, outside me?

As you speak through 10,000 leaves

In my last week I had the very worst night I spent on trail. Some bizarre illness had hit me which I couldn't chalk up to food or water contaminants, and so I didn't know how to treat. I had a fever, constant dizzy spells, and intense nausea, and not a clue what to do. There were miles to a road in either direction and no phone service, and even if it had been more easily accomplished, the thought of calling a ride and leaving the trail when I had come so far depressed me more than the physical ailments I was experiencing. Miserable, exhausted, and at a complete loss, I was grateful for the escape of sleep. That night, dancing, light-filled, vivacious Esther visited my dreams. I've missed her so much since she passed, and the time I got to spend with her shines like brilliant gold in my memory. Esther didn't say anything, but had me sit next to her and lay my head on her shoulder and I just cried. I cried because I miss her and because I was tired through and through, and I cried because I had been lucky enough to call her my friend. I woke up the next morning soaked through with gratitude. I was still ill, but my fever had broken, and I again felt blessed to be on this bizarre and twisting journey.

When I set out on this path I had expected a quiet walk in the woods, difficult but straightforward. I never could have predicted the logistical complications, social exhaustion, and emotional highs or lows that I had coming my way. I look back at those three questions I asked myself at the beginning of the hike and my answers feel absurdly naive. I am sure, though, that for some people thru hiking the LT simply is a pleasantly challenging ramble over the mountains. We really do each hike our own hike.

During the very last days I came to a very reflective and, at long last, peaceful mindset. I never returned to the ecstatic enthusiasm of the early weeks, nor did I fall back into the pessimistic doldrums the third week brought. The southern part of the Long Trail demands significantly fewer steep climbs or descents, and the path passes underfoot quickly and easily. I breathed deeply and thought about Esther's invaluable visit, and the times I had heard my sister's advice echoing in my head, and how many nights I fell asleep sure I could feel the warmth of my partner's arm around me. I thought of Trevor Hall, and 10,000 leaves, and the love that lives within and without us. I thought about how badly I wanted to return to my usual day to day, and I finally saw it. For the first time, I had created a life that I didn't want to abandon for weeks on end. I realized that I had built a foundation with such honest intention that I felt no urge to escape it, even just for a while. This realization shook me, and lifted me, filling me with tears and laughter and gratitude. My load felt lightened. As summer loosened its grip on the trail, the trail loosened its grip on me, and, taking my steady steps back to the home and the people and the life that I love, I finished in a sudden rush of miles.

When I got to Massachusetts earlier than planned, I decided to meet my sister and her boyfriend, out vacationing at my aunt's home on Cape Cod. I expected that I'd need several days to decompress and figure out what to take away from my adventure. In reality, it's taken until writing this post to make sense of what I feel. My body has mostly healed from my various cuts, scrapes, and sore muscles, and only my toes still show the battering it took. I'm acclimated to being back in my home again, and to having running water and a car. Things are pretty much back to normal. But something inside me has certainly shifted. In the last several years I've done a lot of work to open my heart, and keep it that way, despite whatever pain and fear inevitably shows up, as they each must do from time to time. I feel like this month in the woods, less wild than I thought it would be, but far more bewildering, has propped another stone against that door to my heart, helping keep myself open to all things. Open to the people in my life, open to the possibilities that abound, open to the good and bad surprises. Most of all, an open doorway between all that lives inside me and all that lives outside me.

Early on in my hike, words came to me that felt relevant, but would make so much more sense to me in later days.

"I feel cracked open

like a little geode

and all of my light

is spilling out


and refracting.

What makes us afraid to share our love and light with others? Are we afraid it will break? That if we do anything other than keep it closed tight within ourselves, often not even looking at it directly, that it will fall or fade away? So sad, that we doubt its resilience."

As I said, it's strange to read my answers to the three questions one should answer before pursing a thru hike from this side of the Long Trail. I still feel cracked open in that sparkling, organic way, and my answers from before seem so cold and shallow to me now. I'd like to answer them again now, and observe my change in attitude.

Why did you hike the Long Trail: To learn how to find peace in adverse surroundings, and to learn how to let go of control.

What would you have done if you couldn't finish the Long Trail: Been somewhat disappointed. I'd have been thankful for the experience, and gone home and baked some apple bread.

What will you do now that you're done with the Long Trail: I'm going to treat myself and others with more softness and love, even when it's stressful or frightening. I'm going to continue spending as much time as possible outside, and am grateful that no matter how horrible my mood on the trail got, I never wished I was indoors. I'm going to keep talking with the ones that I love, dead and alive, and honor their presence. I'm going to move forward in this life with my heart kept open.

I call on the letters in leaves.

I call on the ones we don't see.

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